Roberts' key role crafting the opinion striking down part of the Voting Rights Act came after years of careful, incremental strategizing to limit the effect of racial classifications. In 2006, with just months on the job, Roberts lamented, "It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race."
A year later discussing a case that struck down a voluntary school integration plan, he said firmly, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
Then in 2009, Roberts and the conservatives on the court sent a clear message to Congress: Fix the Voting Rights Act and its federal enforcement scheme or the court would have "no choice" but to act as the constitutional arbiter. When lawmakers did not respond, the court in large measure did as it promised this week, in stunning fashion.
President Barack Obama said he was "deeply disappointed" in the decision, quite a shift from a year ago when Roberts led the court in upholding the Affordable Care Act, the president's signature health care reform effort. Back then the president called that decision "a victory for people all over this country."
While Kennedy dominates the 5-4 decisions, Roberts was in the majority only 61% of the time. But many conservative legal scholars say the chief justice has a years-long view of the law and of his own power. That gives them hope for the future, even when they do not prevail today.
"It's disappointing to see the representatives of the people in Congress having been overruled here," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel at the Judicial Crisis Network, about the DOMA ruling. "But I think the silver lining is that we see, as the chief justice pointed out, that actually this is a somewhat narrow decision in terms of leaving it to the states to be worked out there in the future."
What worries many progressive activists is the conservative court's consistently united voice on business-related cases, which typically dominate the docket. These disputes don't generate the same political pulse as race and marriage, but carry a hefty legal consequence.
"As opposed to issues like the dismantling of affirmative action, where the court's conservative bloc is divided and has trouble agreeing about how far and how fast to take the law, the court's conservatives are completely united" on this front, said Doug Kendall, head of the Constitutional Accountability Center. "Corporate America wins; workers, consumers, mom and pop shops, and other individual Americans asserting their rights in federal court lose. Again and again."
The excitement of this term will spill over when the justices resume their work in October. Among the closely watched petitions:
• Another affirmative action dispute and a Michigan voter referendum that bans racial preferences in public university admissions, state employment and government contracting.
• Public prayers in town council meetings.
• The validity of Obama's recess appointments to a federal agency when the Senate was in a "pro forma" session.
Each member of the court at some point in their tenure begins to think about a personal legacy. Some of the (relatively) younger ones may think long-term; the elder justices may realize they only have a few more years to make their mark. Three of the justices are in their 50s, three are in their 60s or early 70s; three are 75 or older.
That and the shaky ideological makeup create a court with subtly different agendas and demands. The tension over the 5-4 cases, the mixed-result efforts by Roberts to forge consensus, and the fact each of the chambers operates essentially as their own independent judicial shop means fixing a unified adjective on these nine justices is impossible.
Several of the justices privately acknowledge this unique relationship among themselves. As one told CNN a few years ago, "If we can agree, we will. If we can't, we don't. That's how we look at it, and that really is how it has been, at least as long as I have been on the court. And I expect it will continue."